November 16, 2011
By Lonny Moses
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer suggested that the Jewish community should focus on Torah, rather than continuity for its own sake | Eric Stephenson for JFNA
Propaganda for Israel vs. educating for Israel
When I attend a large Jewish conference, I come into the experience with a healthy dose of cynicism and a quick trigger to critique. As a committed Zionist and Social Justice activist, not to mention a philosophy major, I consider myself to be blessed with the ability to see past the explicit messages that these organizations put forward on the surface and to the implicit messages underneath.
So it was that I attended the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) 2011, in Denver Colo., as a part of the Do The Write Thing student journalism conference. My main question was: As JFNA focuses more on Israel experiences, are they developing a truly Zionist initiative? Or is it merely window dressing, a way to capitalize on the trend of Israel experiences?
Immediately, during the opening session, I started to doubt that the GA would not be just another symposium on how to make sure that our grandchildren stayed Jewish. Was Israel just the most effective way to achieve this goal, or would the GA truly and deeply reflect on what it means to support Israel?
A glimmer of hope came in the form of the GA's Scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the founder of Manhattan's “tradional egalitarian yeshiva,” Yeshivat Hadar. He is probably the youngest scholar-in-residence in the long history of the GA. “Jews were not placed on this earth to survive,” he said at the opening plenary. Kaunfer’s point was, it is essential that we see Judaism as a point of access to the fundamental human questions of meaning, rather than passing on Judaism for the sake of continuity itself. Hearing that, my cynicism crawled back, ever so slightly, into its cave.
Unfortunately, Kaunfer’s uplifting rhetoric was drowned in a sea of pro-Israel propaganda. Let me be clear. I am 100 percent pro-Israel. Nonetheless, when I hear people singing the praises of my beloved country so strongly—its power to change your life! Its amazing technology! Its vibrant democracy!—I call it propaganda. I understand that there is a battle in the public sphere over Israel’s image and that there is work to be done on normalizing the country of Israel.
For some people, that means embarking on positive advertising campaigns for Israel that extend beyond the non-Jewish public, spilling over into the education of young Jews. These tactics, which rely on extreme positions to sway public opinion rather than trying to create a realistic picture, do a disservice to the Zionist mission, especially when it comes to education.
In fact, I would even say that these tactics are the basis of an anti-Zionist education. True Zionist education on the other hand, focuses first on the creation of an emotional connection to Israel and to the Zionist project, through experiences in Israel and interactions with Israelis. Whatever the reason for this emotional connection, a meaningful Zionist experience requires that the young person be given multiple opportunities to explore those emotional encounters, through multiple lenses, learning to see how various parts of the history, philosophical complexity, and discourses around Israel and Judaism have come together to create the emotional experiences. Eventually, the young person must be able to connect their own feelings and experiences to the larger discourses that surround the issues in a meaningful way.
In the breakout sessions at the GA, I saw a mixed message. There were many open and frank discussions of Zionism that I witnessed, but it was in “Turning Israel Program Alumni into Advocates and Activists” that I expected to get a true sense of the desired outcomes of the programs being promoted. Perhaps here, I could solve the question of whether the Israel focus of JFNA was a truly transformative Zionist project, or whether it was simply a poor, Israel right-or-wrong replacement for good Jewish education.
My experience with this panel provided significant insight into this question. It was clear that MASA Israel and its program alumni were the real deal. MASA is a joint project of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government, which aims to bring people to Israel for long-term programs. (Full disclosure – I did a MASA gap year after high school.) It was clear during the panel that most of the MASA alumni had been brought to a point, through their experience, where their Israel journey could be nothing less than a lifelong commitment to the Zionist project, whether living in Israel or the Diaspora.
One young woman I spoke with talked about her work with the children of migrant workers. We discussed the juxtaposition of public policy questions with questions about the definition of Jewishness, Israeliness, and Human Rights. The clarity of the authentic Zionist vision in MASA was a consistent both in the panel discussions and in other presentations at plenary sessions and discussions outside of the programs.
Yet, in the discourse on Birthright, both on the panel and in the plenary sessions, a different picture emerged. Birthright was, to the JFNA member organizations, like a magic pill that could cure people of their malady of non-affiliation. The goal was not to engage in meaningful Zionist discourse, but to somehow transform the young person from an uninvolved Jew into someone who would make Jewish babies!
The problems of this approach came out of the woodwork in full force during the alumni panel, as Birthright participants spoke of their sudden desire to do something Jewish upon returning, but their discovery that there was either nowhere to go in their far-flung community—Cleveland stood accused twice—or that the walls that had prevented Birthright participants from feeling comfortable engaging with Judaism in Jewish centers like New York, remained in place upon their return.
I was reminded, in this panel, of a statement made in the “Real Israel” panel. Amir Shacham is the associate executive vice president for Israel and Overseas at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest N.J. Speaking about Birthright, Shacham elicited gasps when he stated boldly that “Birthright by itself is a failure!” Though he quickly followed up by saying that Birthright is only a success if it leads to more engagement, the collective gasp hung in the air.
However, in the alumni discussion it was clear. From New York to L.A., Detroit to Cleveland, most of the big Birthright success stories—those of people becoming seriously involved in their Jewish communities—were in fact MASA success stories. Some of these people had tasted Israel through Birthright, and then had been lucky enough to find their way to a truly Zionist path. These stories were the exception to the rule though, with Birthright claiming nearly a quarter-million alumni and MASA claiming 60,000, many of whom, presumably, never went on Birthright.
The majority opinion at the GA was that Israel experiences are great, but only because they make people want to “do Jewish” in America. If they happen to go on a MASA program and become committed Zionists, that’s OK too. This view does a huge disservice to the young people onto whom it’s being pushed. Birthright cannot and should not make up for alienating, irrelevant or underwhelming programming for young people under the age of 18 and it certainly will not work unless paired with plentiful opportunities for such engagement upon return.
More importantly, Israel—and the Jewish people—deserve better. We deserve people who have been given an opportunity to connect and grapple with the diversity of ideas, challenges and consequences of Jewish nationalism and culture over time. Clearly there are some people, even at the GA, who understand this. Unless the rest of us come to terms with that reality and work to truly meet this need, the organized Jewish world will continue to fail its young people and itself.
Lonny Moses is the youth leadership coordinator of Habonim Dror North America. He graduated from American University in 2010.